Suspiciously little is known about the man who is set to become Egypt’s next president. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as he has recently been anointed, remains a blank page. We know that he was a career officer in the military who attended Pentagon training courses in America. But hundreds of others went down that road too.
We know, too, that he was handpicked by President Mohammed Morsi, the man he was later to depose, on the flimsiest of criteria: the fact that he was relatively young, religiously observant, and that he was acceptable to the rest of the army. It was precisely this job specification that made Al-Sisi so dangerous to Morsi in particular and the Muslim Brotherhood in general. The man whose job as head of military intelligence was to stop coups from taking place engineered one himself.
Morsi’s belief that the army could be reformed from within blinded him to the possibility that no reform was being carried out at all, that a charade was being acted out when he dismissed Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and appointed Al-Sisi. It was said at the time that Al-Sisi’s hands shook, when he stood in an antechamber of the presidential palace as Morsi dismissed Tantawi. Avuncular, concerned to stiffen the backbone of his new charge, and totally duped, Morsi told Al-Sisi: “Act like a man.”
If nothing else, Al-Sisi proved to be a good actor. Already Al-Sisi has established a reputation for saying one thing and doing the opposite. Under Morsi’s presidency, Al-Sisi was filmed warning against turning the army’s guns against the population of the Sinai, recalling the example of South Sudan. But that is what the Egyptian army is doing now.
In retrospect, the new guard continued the job the old guard had programmed it to do. Three quarters of SCAF were replaced by Morsi, but the military machine carried on the same path regardless. Al-Sisi’s allegiance was to his mentor, Major General Mohamed Farid al-Tohami, and the real power struggle taking place was between military intelligence and the General Intelligence Service, which under its former boss Omar Suleiman became a surrogate foreign ministry. Little wonder that two days after the coup, the interim president Adly Mansour’s first act was to appoint Tohami as head of the GIS.
Al-Sisi’s rise from career officer to national savior is reminiscent of another man who has set back the cause of democracy in his country by decades: Vladimir Putin. Like Al-Sisi, Putin was unknown when he was appointed prime minister by an ailing President Yeltsin. Like Al-Sisi, Putin shot to fame on a wave of state violence – launching a fresh and even more brutal assault on Islamist separatists in the North Caucasus. Like Al-Sisi, Putin offered the promise of stabilizing a country rocked by warring oligarchs. Like Al-Sisi, Putin used nationalism and xenophobia to disguise an autocracy designed to enrich his cronies. Like Al-Sisi, Putin and his serving elite stand to lose substantial commercial interests, if they are forced out of politics. The Egyptian army literally takes a slice out of every kilo of meat Egypt imports. Like Al-Sisi, political challenges to Putin’s rule are treated as existential threats. No negotiation, election or managed transition will get rid of them. For good reason: once they lose power, they could lose their liberty and lives as well. Al-Sisi is all too mindful of what happened to Mubarak, and would undoubtedly be answerable for the massacres he ordered.
Was Putin inevitable for Russia? Maybe. Boris Yeltsin’s western backed regime was so corrupt, and the loss of power felt under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was so extreme, that by the turn of the last century, the majority of Russia yearned for a strongman, someone who could restore lost national pride. But ultimately, Putin’s “strength” has weakened Russia enormously. Vast areas of the country remain undeveloped. Its Brezhnev era infrastructure is collapsing. It has no credible industrial policy. Worst of all, its human capital is depleting. Moscow’s brightest graduates are taking a one-way ticket out of the country.
Egypt does not need a Russian to remind it of its history with military dictators. The journalist Belal Fadl recounts a conversation Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the doyen of Egyptian editors had with another famous Field Marshal – Montgomery. The victor of El Alamein was in Egypt for the 25 anniversary of the Second World War battle and was curious to know why colonels in the Egyptian army – like Nasser – turned into politicians. As Heikal recounts in his book, Revisiting History, Montgomery was not convinced by Heikal’s explanation.
Heikal replies:” I am not trying to convince you. How can I convince you of something that I am not convinced of? I was explaining to you the situation… I am not a proponent of military intervention in politics.”
Ah, but he is now. Heikal shows no such hesitation with Al-Sisi, whom he allegedly advises. Has Heikal convinced himself – “cometh the hour, cometh the man”? Needless to say, Fadl’s column was banned from publication in Al-Shorouk.
The army’s prophecies about the threats posed by Islamists has been self-fulfilling. Having got soldiers to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization – thus closing the door on any possibility of negotiation – arrested and imprisoned thousands of its members, they do now face a genuine campaign from armed militants.
Drive-by shootings of soldiers are increasing, car bombs have wrought carnage outside security headquarters in Cairo and Mansoura, and a helicopter was brought down by a shoulder launched missile. There is no evidence linking the Brotherhood to these attacks, but they are still good news for the authors of the July coup. The attacks help to delegitimize the opposition. The army leaders, and the liberals who support them, mistakenly believe that they have seen this all before. They see this as a rerun of the campaign run by Al-Gama’a al Islamiyya in the 1990’s, which killed nearly 800 soldiers and policemen and dozens of tourists. The army prevailed then and it thinks it can do the same again. Having pushed things to total confrontation, this is a dangerous assumption.
For one thing, Egypt today has unstable neighbors: Libya to the west, Sudan to the south, Gaza to the northeast. Jihadis are transnational and north Africa after the Libyan intervention is awash with arms.
Egypt itself after the revolution of 2011 is a different place. Even those who voted for Ahmed Shafiq, the deep state’s candidate in the presidential election which Morsi won must be having second thoughts about Al-Sisi. Should they invest so much power into the shaky hands of one man ?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.